Slander and libel go beyond just conveying false information about another person. When a person communicates falsehoods about another person that harm the person the lies are about, that can represent defamation in the form of slander or libel, depending on how the information is conveyed.
For information to be defamatory, it first has to be false. It also has to meet one or more other conditions. False information is defamatory if it:
- damages the reputation of the person it is about (such as causing others to see someone as incompetent in their profession)
- leads to the person being subject to contempt, hatred or ridicule (such as being ostracized or made fun of)
- causes the person to be shunned or avoided (such as to be fired or not hired for a job)
For a private person to pursue defamation charges, the individual would need to be prepared to demonstrate that he or she experienced harm in one of the above three ways. If the defamatory information was conveyed via spoken communication, it would represent an example of slander. If it was communicated in writing, it would be libel.
For a public figure or public official, such as a celebrity, news personality, professional athlete, best-selling author, political leader, or another high-profile individual, there is an additional requirement in order to be able to make a case for defamation. Such individuals also have to prove actual malice, which is quite difficult to do.
In order to prove actual malice, the public figure or public official would have to have solid proof that the source of the false information either definitively knew the information was false or acted with reckless disregard for whether it was true or not. Otherwise, the courts view even false information about high-profile individuals to be protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as free speech.
Celebrities often have to deal with false rumors and news reports that meet the conditions for slander and libel. However, they would also have to proove actual malice in order for a court to find in their favor if they decided to move forward with a lawsuit. There are very few celebrity defamation cases with actual legal findings, but there are some.
- In 2019, Australian actor Geoffrey Rush won a libel lawsuit against The Telegraph for publishing claims that he had engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior towards another cast member while filming a movie in 2015.
- David Schwimmer won a slander lawsuit in 2006 against former Hollywood fund-raiser Aaron Tonken, who falsely said that Schwimmer asked for two Rolex watches in payment for his attendance at a charity affair.
- David Beckham's 2011 libel and slander lawsuit against In Touch magazine involved a story that he had cheated on his wife with a prostitute. The lawsuit was rejected after the publication's editorial staff argued that the article only included what they believed to be true.
- In 2005, Sharon Stone sued her plastic surgeon Renato Calabria for allegations that he told several magazines that she had a facelift. Stone and the physician reached an undisclosed settlement regarding the case.
- Actress Cameron Diaz prevailed in a libel lawsuit against The Sun, a UK newspaper that falsely reported she was having an affair with a married man. She was awarded damages for libel in 2005.
- In 2011, Star magazine settled a libel lawsuit filed by actress Katie Holmes. The tabloid falsely reported that the actress had a drug addiction.
- in 2005, actress Kate Hudson won a libel lawsuit against the British edition of The National Enquirer. The publication falsely printed that she had an eating disorder.
Celebrities aren't the only ones in the public eye who experience slander and defamation. Like celebrities, other public figures would also have to demonstrate actual malice in order to prevail in a libel or slander lawsuit. It is rare for political figures to attempt defamation suits. When they do, they are rarely successful, but there are a few examples.
- According to a 2013 decision in a California appeals court, Casino mogul Steve Wynn was slandered by Joe Francis, founder of Girls Gone Wild. Francis falsely claimed Mr. Wynn threatened to kill him because of a gambling debt.
- In 2011, Jerry Seinfeld made comments on the David Letterman show about cookbook author Missy Chase Lapine. He said Lapine was a "nut job" and "a wacko" for saying his wife had plagiarized her cookbook, Deceptively Delicious. The courts found in Seinfeld's favor, indicating that he had a right to express his opinion.
- In 2017, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin filed a libel suit against The New York Times for printing an editorial suggesting she was linked to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. In 2020, a judge ordered the case to proceed to a jury trial, which is slated for early 2021. Time will tell what the verdict will be.
- In 2003, Bascom Bentley, a judge in Texas, prevailed in a defamation suit against a talk show host who publicly accused him of defamation. Due to his position as a judge, Bentley was required to demonstrate actual malice. The court found in his favor and the Texas Supreme Court upheld the decision.
- In 1969, United States Senator Barry Goldwater prevailed in a libel lawsuit against Fact magazine's owner, editor and publisher after the magazine published an article suggesting that Goldwater was not fit to serve in the office to which he was elected. The courts held that Goldwater met the standard of actual malice.
If false information along the lines of the examples listed below meets the conditions of defamation listed above, they would represent slander if spoken and libel if written. Assuming the people impacted are private persons rather than public officials or public figures, the victims would not need to demonstrate actual malice.
- Falsely spreading rumors that a person has a sexually transmitted disease, leading to the individual being shunned or avoided by others.
- Falsely relating to someone that someone is cheating on his or her spouse, leading to damage to the individual's reputation.
- Falsely reporting that a doctor has fake diplomas on his wall, which would damage the doctor's reputation and lead to people shunning or avoiding the doctor.
- An employer claiming an employee stole equipment, leading to termination of the individual's employment.
- Falsely stating that a severed finger was found in the soup at a restaurant, thereby causing people to avoid eating there.
- Falsely accusing someone of stealing your television, which would damage the person's reputation.
- Reporting the business owners participated in unethical and illegal activities if they did not, which could lead to all three conditions of defamation.
- Telling someone that a person cheated on his taxes if the individual did not do so, which could damage the individual's reputation.
- Spreading false rumors that a restaurant is serving meat from dogs, which would cause potential customers to avoid the restaurant.
- Falsely stating that someone is incompetent at their job, which could cause the person to lose their job or be viewed with contempt or ridicule.
- Filing a false sexual harassment complaint against a coworker, which could lead to any of the conditions for defamation.
- Falsely accusing a classmate or coworker of having a threesome with a man and a woman, which could result in any of the conditions for defamation.
Slander and libel are interesting legal concepts. Reviewing some examples of yellow journalism can provide insights into the fine line between free or protected speech and misinformation that crosses the line into becoming defamation. If you're interested in learning more about the law, expand your expertise by learning some key legal abbreviations. This can help you better understand legal documents and reports of court proceedings.